Group for biological farming

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Jenne BrammerThe West Australian
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Farmers keen to adopt biological farming techniques could soon benefit from a group that will share the experiences, mistakes and successes of other growers pursuing the same goals.

The biological farming group is being established by the Wheatbelt Integrity Group, chaired by Newdegate farmer Nick Kelly.

The group was established last year with the aim of freeing farmers from debt.

After its last meeting at Parliament House last month, the group has moved to establish a biological farming group.

Mr Kelly, who farms with wife Lucy and parents Malcolm and Cathie, said the family had been pursuing biological farming on their property for several years.

They have gained much of their information from experts such as Amazing Carbon founder Christine Jones, Soil Foodweb founder Elaine Ingham, and Zimbabwean ecologist Allan Savory.

Mr Kelly described biological farming as a holistic management approach that was sustainable.

He said he was regularly called by other farmers interested in these techniques.

"Moving into biological farming has been a sharp learning curve and we have made mistakes," he said.

"A part of the reason for forming the biological farming group is so that other farmers don't have to make the same mistakes that we have made.

"Therefore the group will become the platform of information sharing."

Initially, it will be shared via WIG's website www.esperance.com.au , but a new site is being developed.

Mr Kelly said there would be an annual field day, the first likely to be held at his Newdegate property in late September or early October next year.

WIG's aim is to have some keynote speakers who specialise in soil health. Mr Kelly said his own farm's biological operation had involved phasing out chemical fertilisers over the past three years and replacing them with compost extracts.

He said by removing chemical fertilisers, total fertiliser costs could be reduced to about $5/ha.

Mr Kelly said the reduction in chemical fertilisers did, however, mean he was achieving lower yields compared to that of several years ago when he was using high amounts of chemical fertilisers.

He said because inputs had reduced drastically, the margins were equal or slightly higher.

"The success of this comes back to what you are growing and then rotations, using legumes in the system and knowing what crops to grow in sequence," he said.

Mr Kelly still uses herbicides on his property, but expects his application rates will be far lower than those of the average farmer.

Herbicide use is likely to decline further as weeds on the property are becoming more manageable.

He said he did not run livestock, but expected to introduce cattle to the farm in the next year because timed grazing would form an important part of the holistic approach.

Mr Kelly also grows summer crops which, in addition to providing a further income stream, importantly add biological components to the soil and help control summer weeds.

In October, he planted 300ha of white French millet, which looks promising after recent rains.

The millet is sold to pet food suppliers as bird seed.

"We have been growing millet for around 10 years," he said.

"We have been getting better at this over time, having made mistakes and finding out what crops not to plant it after."

Mr Kelly has also recently planted 88ha of sunflowers.

Whether they can be harvested about March as expected will depend on summer rainfall.

Any seeds will again be sold to pet food suppliers.

If it was a dry summer and the sunflowers were not harvested, Mr Kelly said they would still be beneficial.

"So even in the likely scenario that the summer is dry and we can't harvest the sunflower seeds, it is still worth growing them as they offer benefits to the soil," he said.

"Planting sunflowers is cheaper than spraying for summer weeds and a lot healthier.

"They will just return to the soil, meaning we've grown our soil health over summer."

Next year Mr Kelly said his winter crop would involve areas where oats and field peas were planted in the same ground, and where non-genetically modified canola and field peas were planted together.

"We mix the seed and in the instance of oats and field peas, it's a cereal and legume being harvested together - they are then harvested as one and separated," he said.

Mr Kelly said biological farming was similar to organic farming in that both types of growers had similar goals.

However, he said biological farming was not about adopting practices quickly to gain organic certification.

"You can be an organic farmer and be doing a lot of tillage, which means burning a lot of carbon, which does not meet our sustainable goals," he said.

"I'm not saying an organic farmer that did tilling would not be welcome in our group - of course they would.

"But biological farming is looking at a holistic farming system that is about growing soil rather than burning carbon."

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